God With Us
Sermon preached by Rev. Christy Lang Hearlson on December 22, 2013 at The Union Church of Waban, MA
Prayer: Come now, Holy Spirit, in wisdom and in truth, to illumine our minds and kindle our hearts. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, our Rock and our Redeemer. Amen.
It’s winter and it’s snowy outside, and at our house, that means we pull out our favorite movies and watch them in the evenings. Of course, since we now have a baby and go to bed early, this means we usually only watch a thirty-minute installment of a favorite film, and it takes us some time to get through a whole movie. This past week we’ve been re-watching the marvelous Lord of the Rings trilogy, with its hobbits and wizards and orcs and epic adventures.
In the segment we just watched, Frodo the Hobbit and his loyal friend Sam are traveling ever closer to Mt. Doom, where they must evade the eyes of the enemy and destroy the evil ring of power. They’re bedraggled and forlorn, and they journey toward a horizon that burns with fire and black smoke.
At an especially low moment, Sam reaches into bag and takes out bread. He offers it to Frodo and says, “Here, eat this.” Frodo asks, “What about you?” Sam replies, “We don’t have that much left. You go ahead and eat that, Mr. Frodo. I’ve rationed it. There should be enough left.” Puzzled, Frodo asks, “For what?” Sam replies matter-of-factly, “The journey home.” Frodo doesn’t speak, but his face says it all. Sam is saving food for a return journey that Frodo believes is impossible. Frodo is certain they travel to their death. Facing terrible odds and an enemy who could crush them, Sam’s simple hope looks a little foolish.
2700 years ago, King Ahaz of Judah thought hope looked foolish. His story appears in Isaiah 7, which we just heard read. In that time, Israel was divided north and south. The north was referred to as Ephraim, and the south as Judah—that is where Ahaz ruled. To the northeast of Israel was a medium-sized nation called Aram. All of them were afraid, because further to the east lay the giant, ruthless war machine of Assyria. Assyria was taking over the world, invading capitols, capturing kings, destroying whole peoples. It was a terrifying neighbor. So the leaders of Ephraim and Aram decided to make an alliance and stand together against the terrible Assyria. But they knew they couldn’t do it alone. They needed the manpower and resources that Judah in the south of Israel could offer. Instead of asking politely for help, they decided to invade Judah and take it over. They wanted to oust Ahaz of Judah from his throne and put a puppet king in his place who would do their bidding and help them fight Assyria. It’s sort of game of thrones. So they gathered an army and attacked Jerusalem. They laid siege to it. In a siege, nothing went in or out of the city. And this meant that its occupants were vulnerable to starvation if they stayed inside the walls, and if they went outside the walls, they could be killed.
They were terrified. We read that their hearts “shook as the trees of the forest shake before the wind.” But then God sent the prophet Isaiah to Ahaz to say, “Don’t be afraid of these two who are trying to attack you. They won’t succeed.” Then God offered to give a sign to Ahaz, any sign he wanted! But this offer made Ahaz a bit nervous, so with a kind of false piety he said, “I don’t want to test God.”
Isaiah found this response exasperating. He said, “You’re being ridiculous. Isn’t it enough that you weary mortals? Do you have to weary God, too? Well, I don’t care! Guess what? God’s going to give you a sign anyway, even though you won’t ask for one! And here it is. See that young woman over there who’s pregnant? She’s going to have a son. And she’s going to name him. And the name she is going to give him will surprise you. She’s not going to name him Abraham or Jacob or Robert or Charlie—no, she’s going to make up a name. She’s going to call her baby “God with us,” or in Hebrew, Immanuel. Here’s what you can count on, Ahaz. By the time little “God-is-with-us” has been weaned and is eating curds and honey in his high chair, these two kings who are attacking your city will be long gone. Don’t be afraid of them.”
See, the sign that God gives to Ahaz is not just a child with a special name. It’s also the woman who bears the child and names him such an audacious name. It is an unusual name. Remember when the NBA player Ron Artest renamed himself Metta World Peace—how funny and jarring that was to hear? It still surprises me every time he’s playing and an announcer praises World Peace for making a great play. Or more recently when he went to the play for the Knicks, there were all these news stories about how great it was that World Peace was finally going home.
Well, this woman in Isaiah gives her baby a name like that. God-with-us. Immanuel. This is a surprising name at the least. After all, her city is under siege. Her people could starve. One army is at the gates and another is probably on its way. It is not a good time to have a baby! But here she is, bringing a child into the world and daring to name him, “God with us.” It’s a name of hope.
The author Barbara Kingsolver once said about hope,
“The pessimist would say, ‘It’s going to be a terrible winter; we’re all going to die.’ The optimist would say, ‘Oh, it’ll be all right; I don’t think it will be that bad.’ [But] The hopeful person would say, ‘Maybe someone will still be alive in February, so I’m going to put some potatoes in the root cellar just in case.’ [Kingsolver says]…Hope is a mode of survival….a mode of resistance. … It’s not a state of mind, but something we actually do with our hearts and our hands…”
Hope is not a state of mind, but something we actually do with our hearts and our hands. That’s what this unnamed woman is doing. The name she gives her son is a name of survival, of resistance. She is living in the light of a dawn that has not yet come, in response to a promise that has not yet been fulfilled.
As her little boy grows, he will be the concrete manifestation of her insistent hope. Every time King Ahaz hears this mother say, “Come here, God-with-us,” or “Did you bump your head, God-with-us?”, or “God-with-us, no biting,” Ahaz will be reminded of this woman’s hope, and of what it means to trust God’s promised future.
Seven hundred years later, the gospel writer Matthew tells a story of the birth of Jesus, drawing on this ancient tale about Ahaz and Isaiah. In Matthew’s time, Israel was occupied by a vast superpower, the Roman Empire. The people longed for deliverance. But now instead of the prophet Isaiah coming to king Ahaz, telling him not to be afraid, and pointing out a young woman who would name her child Immanuel, now, in Matthew’s story, an angel comes to Joseph, tells him not to be afraid, points out Mary’s pregnancy, and tells him to name the child Jesus. Like the name Immanuel, this is also a name of hope; Jesus means “The Lord saves.” It’s a big name for a little baby. He’s born to poor parents in an occupied country in uncertain, violent times. To call him “The Lord Saves” is to look toward a future that seems almost impossible.
But, as Matthew notes, Jesus won’t always be a baby. This one who is “God with us” will grow up to give people hope. He will, as Matthew says, save the people from their sins. He will be what Paul calls the forerunner and firstfruits of our resurrection. When Joseph and Mary name their child Jesus, they show they are living in hope, and their child becomes a sign and source of hope. Like old king Ahaz seeing little Immanuel crawling around in diapers, when we see this Christ Child, we should be startled by the insistent, audacious hope he represents.
Advent, as you probably know, means “arrival.” Today, if you ask people what arrival we wait for in Advent, most would probably say we wait for the birth of Jesus. And that’s true, and of course his birth is worth celebrating. We rejoice in the mystery of the incarnation. But this backward-looking emphasis leads our culture to surround Christmas with nostalgia. You can see it in those fun Victorian caroling groups, or in those detailed miniature Christmas villages, and in the preservation of beloved traditions. Now, I’m personally a sucker for nostalgia. Our house had greens on the mantle and carols playing and stockings hung by the chimney with care the second that Advent hit.
But for centuries, Christians didn’t just prepare for the birth of Christ at Christmas. They also prepared for the return of Christ, or the day of the Lord, or, as the gospel writer Matthew described it, the coming of God’s kingdom in fullness. In Advent, people looked forward to a day of deliverance, when our world will be healed and made whole, when death and disease will be no more, when oppression and injustice will end, when people won’t mourn or cry anymore, when God will redeem creation and make all things right. This forward-looking longing was the Spirit of Advent and Christmas. You can hear that longing when we sing the very old hymn, “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel and ransom captive Israel.” Longing.
Theologians like to talk about that longed-for day as both already and not yet. Already, and not yet. In Christ, the day of the Lord has already dawned. The kingdom is already among us. In Jesus’ person, in his healing, his teaching, his compassion, his suffering and death, his resurrection, God is already with us. And sometimes we see signs of God’s promised future breaking into our world.
I hope you saw the story of James Gray in the news this last week. James Gray is an elderly Irishman who was sick of spending Christmas alone. After ten years of being alone on Christmas, he decided to reach out and ask someone to spend Christmas with him. But he did it in an unusual way. He posted a want-ad in the paper, asking anyone to come and have Christmas lunch with him. But no one responded. Well, one person did, but then backed out. This was discouraging. But then the news picked up his story, and suddenly, James Gray started getting offers. Christmas cards started showing up. Gifts arrived. So many cards came for him that the post office had to set up a special box. He’s received hundreds of offers for places to go or things to do on Christmas. This last Wednesday alone, he received 277 Christmas cards! The photos of James Gray show him beaming and in disbelief. He commented, “I don’t know why I never did this before!” Sometimes God’s compassion breaks into our world. Sometimes we see signs of God’s promised future, even now among us.
But this is also a not-yet world. Death, violence, and decay still hold sway. Our loved ones die. Our families fracture. Our promises break. Our leaders fail. Our systems are corrupt. Our nations rush to war. It’s a not-yet world. In this not-yet world, the Christmas Spirit is not about backward-looking nostalgia, but intense, forward-looking hope. Not just optimism or good cheer. Not an escape from reality. But hope as a mode of survival. Hope that grabs on and won’t let go. Hope as a form of resistance to all that is broken and incomplete in our world.
In 1863, when the U.S. was torn apart by the Civil War, Henry Wordsworth Longfellow wrote a poem out of this kind of hope. He had just lost his wife in an accident, and then, without his permission, his son signed up for the war and was severely wounded in battle. Bereft and fearful, Longfellow wrote a poem that later became a Christmas carol you probably know. It begins, “I heard the bells on Christmas Day/their old familiar carol play,/ and wild and sweet /the words repeat,/ of peace on earth, goodwill to men!”
Most of the time when you hear this carol sung, you don’t hear the middle stanzas of the poem, which reflects explicitly the reality of the war. Longfellow writes,
“It was as if an earthquake rent
The hearth-stones of a continent,
And made forlorn
The households born
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!
His sorrow for his country and his family has shaken his faith. He continues,
And in despair I bowed my head;
“There is no peace on earth,” I said;
“For hate is strong,
And mocks the song
Of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
But Longfellow’s poem doesn’t end with despair. Something about the bells catches his attention. It’s as if they’re heralding a coming future, one he can just barely believe in but which he clings to with all his strength. He writes,
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep:
“God is not dead, nor doth He sleep;
The Wrong shall fail,
The Right prevail,
With peace on earth, good-will to men.”
This is fierce, insistent hope. In spite of everything, in spite of the war and the loss and the grief, Longfellow looks to the future and claims, the wrong shall fail, the right prevail. This is hope as resistance, hope that is stirred up by the sound of church bells ringing, or the sound of a congregation singing, or the sight of candles burning in the dark night, or by the name of the Christ Child who is himself a promise.
This kind of hope is not passive. It fuels our work. Because we trust that the wrong will fail and the right prevail, we work energetically toward that coming day. We combat homelessness and poverty, though the problems seem too big and systemic to overcome. We fight to cure diseases even when they seem intractable. We feed hungry people, though we know they will be hungry again soon. We work for enough housing for everyone even when the problem seems overwhelming. We vote or protest even when others say our voice makes no difference. We tutor a child whom everyone else expects to fail. We pray for the addict who never seems to improve. We forgive when we know the one we’re forgiving will just mess up again. We raise children to be honest and kind, even when our world doesn’t always reward those qualities. We do these things because God has promised that we do not do them in vain. In doing them, we participate in God’s coming future. We anticipate a world made whole.
But we don’t just work. We also celebrate! We celebrate! A friend of mine tells a story about a group of folks who used to travel on the Long Island Railroad together into and out of Manhattan. If you walked through most cars on that railroad on a Friday afternoon, you would see people reading the paper, chatting quietly on their phones, staring blankly out the window, or snoozing in their seat, exhausted after a long week. But one car was special. If you walked into that car on a Friday afternoon, you would see a party. This group of people who traveled back and forth together almost every day had decided each week to live into the reality of the coming weekend. So before they were even out of the station, they reached into their bags and brought out food and drink. They passed hors d’oevres, champagne and wine, chatted together, acting as though it were already the weekend. They threw a party right there on the Long Island Railroad express. Yes, they were tired. Yes, the commute was long and ugly. But they knew the weekend was coming, so they started celebrating now.
This is what we’re doing in Advent and Christmas. We’re living into the reality of God’s promise, a promise we’re reminded of every time we look at the Christ Child lying in the manger—our Immanuel.
So though it may look foolish to everyone else, we save bread for the journey home. We store potatoes in the root cellar. We give our children names of hope and work for a world that will give them hope. We write poems. We sing carols. We light candles. We decorate trees. We exchange gifts. We celebrate—not to forget the way the world is, but to anticipate the way it will be.
Looking to this child who is our hope, our Immanuel, may we be Advent people. Let us look for signs of God’s promised future even now. Let us work and celebrate in anticipation, filled with an unquenchable, fierce spirit of hope.